The best fast food salads, according to nutritionists

When we think of eating a healthy, balanced diet, popular fast food chains like Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s aren’t exactly the first thing to come to mind. That’s for good reason ― fast food consumption has been linked to everything from the obesity epidemic to rising infertility rates among men.

But as people have become increasingly concerned about their health and worked to clean up their diets, fast food chains have caught on and added an out of character item to their menus: Salad.

For the most part, the rise of the fast food salad is a good thing — especially for people have a hard time affording healthy food. “Generally speaking, I think fast food salads can be a good option for people who have limited access to whole, fresh, healthy food and produce,” nutritionist Tamar Samuels told HuffPost.

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Best and worst fast food salads
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Best and worst fast food salads

8. Wendy’s Harvest Chicken Salad

The Wendy’s Harvest Chicken Salad has almost as much salt, fat and sugar as most people should eat in an entire day.

This salad may look and taste delicious, but it’s pretty awful nutrition-wise. Containing 570 calories, 37g sugar, 23g fat and 1,300mg sodium, “It’s almost a full day’s worth of salt, fat and sugar in a bowl,” said Heinrich. “I say ‘A’ for effort, ‘F’ for healthy.

7. Burger King Chicken Club Salad

This Burger King salad has multiple fried items.

Sorry, BK lovers — the burgers may delicious, but the salads aren’t healthy at all. “The biggest concern for me is the amount of sodium in this salad — 1,660 mg,” Samuels said. “That’s almost a day’s worth of the recommended amount of sodium in just one meal. And let’s not forget about the multiple fried items in this salad — fried chicken, croutons and bacon.”

Nutrition-wise, this salad doesn’t offer much, she said. “It’s just romaine lettuce and cherry tomatoes — those are the only veggies,” Samuels said. “It also has 610 calories per serving, which is about the same amount as a Whopper.”

6. Taco Bell Chicken Cantina Power Bowl

 Customizing the Taco Bell salad can help make it healthier.

First things first: Taco Bell’s power bowl isn’t exactly healthy. “Weighing in at a whopping 20g of fat, 1,230 mg of sodium and over 50 carbs, this bowl from Taco Bell is definitely a ‘power’ punch to your diet,” Heinrich told HuffPost.

Still, all hope is not lost. “The one positive is that you can customize the bowl, and the website is very helpful in laying out how many calories are in each ingredient. If you take the extra time, you may be able to create something healthy,” Heinrich said.

5. Carl’s Junior Charbroiled Chicken Salad

Carl's Junior's chicken salad offering only uses iceberg lettuce.

While Carl’s Juniors’ popular charbroiled chicken salad is low in calories (280 without dressing) and high in protein (32 grams), the rest of the salad is pretty “blah.” “They only use iceberg lettuce, and other than that all they have veggie-wise is a few slices of tomato and red onion,” Heinrich said. “The rest is cheese, croutons and chicken.”

4. Jack In The Box Grilled Chicken Salad

Although Jack In The Box’s Grilled Chicken Salad is too high in sodium (1,093 mg), it has a few other redeeming qualities, Heinrich said. “The ingredients are mostly vegetables, and grilled chicken is a great source of protein,” she said. “Plus, it’s only 350 calories without the dressing.”

To make it healthier, she suggested going dressing-free and removing the black olives and cheese.

3. McDonald’s Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad

McDonald’s is perhaps the most popular food chain out there, and if you frequent those golden arches, we have some good news — their Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad is actually pretty good for you.

The salad has a great variety of leafy greens, Samuels said. “It has romaine, baby spinach, baby kale, Lollo Rossa lettuce, red leaf lettuce, red oak lettuce, red tango lettuce, red romaine lettuce, and red butter lettuce,” she said. “It also has a nice variety of vegetables, including black beans, roasted tomatoes, poblano peppers.” The salad is relatively low in calories, at 350 per serving without dressing.

There are a few issues with this salad, though. “It contains a whopping 1,070 mg of sodium,” Samuels said. “Plus, the cilantro lime glaze has a ton of preservatives and questionable ingredients, like propylene glycol alginate.”

2. Subway Turkey Breast Salad

Be sure to take the dressing's nutrition into account when considering Subway's salad.

If you’re looking for a nutrient-dense, low-calorie salad, Subway’s popular turkey breast salad is a good option. “This salad has a wide variety of vegetables compared to the other salads,” Samuels said. “It includes more nutritious salad greens like spinach, and also has cucumbers, green peppers, red onions, tomatoes, and black olives. It’s lower in calories (344 calories per serving), and has one of the lower sodium contents I’ve seen for fast food salads (560 mg), which is still considered high, but not as high as many others.”

The one thing to watch out for? Dressing. “The nutrition facts for this salad don’t include dressing, which is deceiving as we know because of the additional calories and sodium from the salad dressing,” Samuels said.

1. Chick-fil-A’s Grilled Market Salad

Good news, Chick-fil-A fans: Nutrition-wise, it doesn’t get much better than this salad. “The Grilled Market Salad at Chick-fil-A may be one of the best nutritional salads offered in the traditional fast food salad arena that I’ve seen,” Heinrich said. “It’s high in protein and fiber and not a disaster in sodium and fat. It has nice portions of fruits and vegetables.”

To make it healthier, Heinrich suggests removing the blue cheese and keeping the dressing light. “This is a fantastic salad to grab-and-go on occasion when you’re in a ‘find a healthy food’ bind,” she said.

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The issue with these salads arises when we just assume they’re healthy without examining the ingredients. “Even though you may want to applaud the fast food industry for finally offering something on the somewhat ‘healthy’ side compared to their traditional fare, you still have to ask yourself, ‘are these salads as healthy as they claim?’” said Karina Heinrich, an international certified integrative nutritionist. “Unfortunately, most are not.”

Many of these salads are high in sodium and calories and low in nutrients, Samuels noted. “They’re loaded with preservatives and contain several unnecessary food additives that one would not expect from a simple salad supposedly made of whole ingredients,” she said.

So should you avoid fast food salads altogether? No, but it’s crucial to do your homework and be an ingredient detective.

Luckily, we did some of it for you. Here’s a ranking of the most popular fast food salads.

RELATED: Healthiest fast food menu items to order next time 

15 PHOTOS
15 of the healthiest fast-food menu items
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15 of the healthiest fast-food menu items

Chipotle — Chicken Burrito Bowl with brown rice & pinto beans, no cheese or sour cream: 500 calories

Chipotle has lots of fresh, healthier options. In general, nix the cheese and sour cream (an occasional dollop of guac is fine, since it's packed with healthy fats), and go for deconstructed alternatives to their burritos, like this one, which has:

500 calories — not too low, not too high 

42 g of protein — a hefty amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

13.5 g of fat — a little on the high side

57 g of carbs — roughly one-third of your recommended daily allowance

805 mg of sodium — a little less than half your recommended daily allowance

Starbucks — Spinach and Feta Wrap: 290 calories

While the yummy pastries at Starbucks are sure to catch your eye mid-afternoon, sugary muffins and scones can leave you hangry. Their hot breakfast items, like this wrap, are likely a healthier, more filling meal, with:

290 calories — pretty low as far as lunch goes; pair with a high-protein side like plain Greek yogurt

19 g of protein — a pretty good amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

10 g of fat — not too low, not too high

33 g of carbs — pretty high; replace sugary or carb-heavy snacks with protein-rich ones

830 mg of sodium — just under half your daily allowance

In-N-Out — Cheeseburger with onion, ketchup, and mustard, no spread: 480 calories

You don't have to turn to the secret menu (we're lookin' at you, Protein-Style fans) to get a lighter option at In-N-Out. Swap the special sauce for some ketchup and mustard to slash some fat and calories, and opt for a regular burger instead of a Double-Double.

480 calories — not too high, not too low

22 g of protein — a good amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

27 g of fat — on the high side (a little less than half your daily allowance)

41 g of carbs — roughly 14% of your recommended daily allowance

1080 mg of sodium — close to half your recommended daily allowance

Chick-fil-A — Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap: 340 calories

The "home of the original chicken sandwich" spiced up its menu last year, adding a smattering of healthy fare like this option, which has: 

350 calories — pretty low as far as lunch items go; you might want to pair this with a yogurt, a small salad, or some fresh fruit

37 g of protein — a hefty amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

14 g of fat — not too low, not too high

29 g of carbs — on the low side

960 mg of sodium — about half your recommended daily allowance

Wendy's — Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad, full size: 480 calories

Not all of Wendy's salads are healthy (the Spicy Caesar Chicken Salad, for example, packs 790 calories and 43 grams of fat), but a couple are winners in most areas, including this "Mediterranean" chicken salad. The drawback to this salad, however, is that it's very high in sodium.

480 calories — on the low side

43 g of protein — a hefty amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

16 g of fat — on the higher side, but not a deal-breaker

42 g of carbs — pretty high and about a third comes from sugar

1200 mg of sodium — more than half your daily allowance

Shake Shack — Single Hamburger or Chicken Dog: 360 or 300 calories

While they're known for their towering Shack Stacks and crispy fries, this chain has lighter options too. Notably, their vegetarian 'Shroom Burger isn't one of them. The hamburger (without cheese) has:

360 calories — pretty low as far as lunch items go; you might want to pair this with a yogurt, a small salad, or some fresh fruit

26 g of protein — a good amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

17 g of fat — on the higher side, but not a deal-breaker

25 g of carbs — pretty low

460 mg of sodium — pretty low

The Chicken Dog has:

300 calories — pretty low as far as lunch items go

26 g of protein — a good amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

11 g of fat —not too high, not too low

32 g of carbs — not too high, not too low

970 mg of sodium — a little under half your daily allowance

McDonald's — Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich: 380 calories

While I wasn't very impressed by the taste of the Artisan Grilled Chicken, it's definitely one of the healthier choices at McDonald's, since the meat is grilled rather than fried. Here's how the sandwich stacks up:

380 calories — pretty low for a lunch items go; you might want to pair this with a yogurt, a small salad, or some fresh fruit

37 g of protein — a hefty amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

7 g of fat — not too low, not too high

44 g of carbs — roughly 14% of your daily allowance

1100 mg of sodium — about half your daily allowance

Taco Bell — Chicken Burrito Supreme, "Fresco Style": 340 calories

No longer solely the land of Chalupas and Crunchwrap Supremes, Taco Bell has expanded its healthier offerings with the "Fresco" menu, which essentially swaps the sour cream and cheese in popular items for salsa. Here's how the Fresco Burrito with chicken shapes up: 

340 calories — pretty low as far as lunch items go; you might want to pair this with a yogurt, a small salad, or some fresh fruit

19 g of protein — a pretty good amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

8 g of fat — not too low, not too high

49 g of carbs — roughly 16% of your recommended daily allowance

1060 mg of sodium — close to half your recommended daily allowance 

Panera — Strawberry Poppyseed Salad with Chicken: 340 calories

Panera has plenty of yummy nutritious items, at least for lunch. The only bone we have to pick with this salad is that, because of the dressing and fruit, it contains a hefty amount of sugar at 20 grams. Otherwise, here's how it stacks up:

430 calories — not too high, not too low

25 g of protein — a hefty amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

13 g of fat — a moderate amount

31 g of carbs — a moderate amount

280 mg of sodium — low, especially compared to the other items on this list

McDonald's — Egg McMuffin: 300 calories

The fruit and yogurt parfait isn't the only healthy morning item that McDonald's offers. Avoiding the meat is an easy way to lighten up their traditional all-day breakfast fare. An Egg McMuffin has:

300 calories — on the lower side if you're eating it for lunch

18 g of protein — a hefty amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

12 g of fat — on the higher side, but not a deal-breaker

30 g of carbs — fairly low

730 mg of sodium — about a third of your recommended daily allowanc

Dunkin' Donuts — Egg White Flatbread: 280 calories

For a chain that specializes in deep-fried dough, Dunkin' Donuts has quite a few healthy breakfast options, like their Egg White Flatbread, which has:

330 calories — pretty low as far as lunch goes; pair with a side salad, some fruit, or a yogurt

18 g of protein — a good amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

14 g of fat — not too high, not too low

33 g of carbs — roughly 11% of your recommended daily allowance

570 mg of sodium — about a quarter of your daily allowance

Papa John's — Garden Fresh Pizza, two medium slices: 400 calories

One of the least healthy things about most pizza-chain fare is the high sodium content, which some research suggests may be bad for your heart. If you're a pizza fan, keep an eye your salt intake the rest of the day after you've indulged in a few slices. The Garden Fresh pie has:

400 calories — on the lower side

16 g of protein — a pretty good amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

14 g of fat — not too low, not too high

54 g of carbs — pretty high; replace sugary or carb-heavy snacks with protein-rich ones in your other meals

960 mg of sodium — just under half your daily allowance

Pizza Hut — Garden Party Thin Crust Pizza, two medium slices: 460 calories

As part of its recent attempt to overhaul its brand, Pizza Hut began offering several options with more fresh veggies and popular toppings like Sriracha. But like other pizza chains, most offerings are high in sodium and carbs. The Garden Party pizza has:

460 calories — not too high, not too low

18 g of protein — a pretty good amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

18 g of fat — on the higher side, but not a deal-breaker

60 g of carbs — pretty high; watch your other snacks

900 mg of sodium — a little under half your daily allowance

Burger King — BK Veggie Burger, no mayo: 310 calories

Many vegetarians were excited when Burger King announced its veggie option. Overall at this restaurant, you should follow same rules we highlighted for ordering at McDonald's: Avoid mayo and fried options and go for sandwiches instead of meal packages. Here's the BK Veggie lowdown:

310 calories — pretty low as far as lunch items go; you might want to pair this with a yogurt, a small salad, or some fresh fruit

22 g of protein — a hefty amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

7 g of fat — not too low, not too high

42 g of carbs — roughly 14% of your daily allowance

990 mg of sodium — close to half your daily allowance

Subway — 6-inch Turkey Breast Sub, no cheese, add avocado: 340 calories

"Eating fresh" is pretty easy at this chain, where you can get lean meats or just fresh veggies on whole-wheat bread with a variety of low-calorie, low-fat dressings. Turkey and avocado, my personal favorite, has:

340 calories — pretty low as far as lunch items go; you might want to pair this with a yogurt, a small salad, or some fresh fruit

18 g of protein — a pretty good amount to strengthen muscles and fill you up

9 g of fat — not too low, not too high

49 g of carbs — roughly 16% of your daily allowance

670 mg of sodium — not bad; much lower than competing items at Chipotle or Taco Bel

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